Gary Houlder—Getty Images

Q: Have I been demoted? I think I got demoted yesterday. I’m not sure exactly if that’s it, because nobody told me directly. Instead, there was a group meeting with me and the two temps I hired a few months ago. Our office manager extended their contracts in one breath and said “You all report to me; it’s a flat hierarchy from now on.” They’ve been assigned new tasks and a lot of the work that was solely on my shoulders is now parcelled out.

Am I being elbowed out gracelessly? Insultingly? Is she just incompetent? Am I part of an office war? What’s the proactive thing to do?

A: Go talk to your boss and ask. I’d say this: “Can you tell me what made you decide to switch Jane and Fergus over to reporting to you and assign them X, Y, and Z rather than have me continue to do that work?” Pause there and listen. It might be that she has an explanation that has nothing to do with you (like that she’s gearing up to have you focus on some other big project), who knows. But if you feel like you’re still left unsure, say this: “I have to admit, it makes me worry that you had concerns about how I was managing them or how well I was doing with XYZ. If that’s the case, I’d be grateful to know so that I can improve.”

Q: Should I feel guilty for having nothing to do? I’m a salaried, exempt employee making $30,000 per year at my first professional job. I get all of my work done in a timely fashion and there have been no complaints about what I produce. But during slow periods, I literally run out of tasks unless I make them for myself, which I’m not really authorized to do.

I’ve suggested initiatives to my boss — upgrading the website, for example — and he’s been really slow to authorize me to work on those types of things, because he’s out of town all the time and his default response to anything speculative is “we’ll talk about it when I get back next week” ad infinitum. I ask my main colleague if I can help him with anything and he almost never says yes.

How much time can I spend reading stuff online before I need to feel guilty? Am I making enough of an effort to stay busy in service of the company? Is this an issue I need to raise with my manager, or is it okay to take advantage of the slow periods while staying at the office to keep up appearances? I don’t want to be a shirker.

A: You don’t need to feel guilty at all. You’ve asked for more work, you’ve looked for new projects yourself, you’ve asked a colleague if you can help him. There’s no cause for guilt here.

That said, I’d draw up a list of projects that you’d like to work on, and the next time you’re able to grab your manager for any significant type of conversation, get the list in front of him and ask if he’ll okay you working on any of them. If he says you’ll talk next week, follow up with him next week. And meanwhile, it’s perfectly appropriate to use the slow periods to do things like work on developing a skill, or reading industry news, or anything else that’s nominally work-related.

These questions are adapted from ones that originally appeared on Ask a Manager. Some have been edited for length.

More From Ask a Manager: